Thoughts on public speaking as craft

I am writing this from a hotel room in Toronto, where I gave a speech. A highlight for me was signing 300 copies of I Know How She Does It. Writing my name again and again (and again!) on the title page was a meditation on bringing an idea to fruition.

Of course, if I wanted this career, it is slightly different than I envisioned. I did not set out to become a public speaker. I have simply found that book writing and speaking go together as a profession. I have also discovered that speaking taps into interests of mine I did not pursue directly. I spent a lot of time dancing in my teen years, and I sang in college and afterwards. Speaking gets me back up on stage. I often remind myself before gigs that I am really in the entertainment business.

Since I have wound up in this business, I am working to become better at it. A reader wrote the other day asking for advice on how to get better at public speaking. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and asking lots of speakers for their tips. The simple answer is to practice. But as I know from watching my boys interact with the piano, simply telling someone to practice is not the same thing as making progress. So here are a few more specific discoveries in my grand Public Speaking Improvement Project.

Speaking is a two-way street. A good speech is only good if the listeners engage with it. I do not know what the goal is for your speech — motivate people to vote for someone? Entertain your listeners? Have them think differently about their lives? But you should figure out what that is, and write your speech with that in mind.

People like stories. I have mixed feelings about the whole storytelling thing, as life does not happen in neat stories. Sometimes stories cause us to ignore actual facts. People also make stories up left and right, and I am a highly suspicious person. On the other hand, they are easy to remember, both for you, and for the audience. So come up with a few main points, and a memorable story for most of them.

Humor is good. I know there are some people who specialize in telling stories of trauma that turn inspirational (or are supposed to move people to action). But I have found that even the speakers who want to turn particularly deep do better when they get the audience laughing on occasion. It is part of not taking ourselves too seriously.

Iterate. Getting better at audience engagement can only happen by seeing what works and what does not. This is why speakers get better over time. Giving your speech 100 times in front of the bathroom mirror is fine, but you have no idea what will make audiences laugh or sit in rapt attention. You need to get your material in front of people. Correspondingly…

You should practice in front of people. I have given versions of my speech to a few small groups for free partly as a way of getting practice time for bigger paid speeches. This does not work if you are incredibly famous, since the clips will wind up on You Tube, but most of us are not in such high demand that we cannot practice in low-stakes ways.

You should know your material cold. I aim to do at least 3 full run-throughs before bigger speeches, and that is with re-using at least 50% of the same basic material. I find that the trip to the airport can become an extra practice opportunity. For instance, it took me precisely 32 minutes to drive to the Philadelphia airport on Sunday, and I ran through my speech once during this time. Good to check for timing!

Get to know your audience. Time management is universal. Everyone thinks that no one else understands how busy people in that particular profession are, but any given group has its own woe. Part of engaging an audience is having them feel like you know them and their challenges. This comes from doing research. One reason I often have people keep track of their time before my workshops is that it helps me get to know what any particular group cares about.

Consider skipping the slides. Perhaps a controversial suggestion, I know, but I now consider myself PowerPoint free unless an organization specifically requests it. The key reason to do this is not that slides add nothing (though that is often true) but skipping the slides requires you to know your material without any back-up. Because guess what? Slides fail. I have seem some examples of epic slide failure, and even if it is not the fault of the speaker, no one in the audience knows that.

Pay attention. Watch videos of yourself. It can be painful, but it is always enlightening!

Watch other people. To me, a big upside of going to conferences is I get to see other people practice their craft. I see what works for them and how people react. Watching excellent speakers is quite pleasurable. Watching questionable ones is sometimes painful, but I try to analyze why it is painful so I can learn.

In other news: I have a post up over at Fortune on Simple ways to add 2 more hours to your day. The headline is (obviously!) slightly misleading. You cannot create more time. But certain time management practices have a huge impact. These are five of them.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on public speaking as craft

  1. Isn’t it funny how careers evolve and change? I think that a huge part of being successful is being adaptable and open to different experiences. This gives me a lot of hope and excitement for the future. I would love to do some public speaking – once I’m no longer anonymous. I’m sure it would terrify me beforehand, but I usually do alright once my momentum builds up a bit.

    1. @Harmony- I’m not sure exactly when I flipped from terrified to enjoying it, but I do really enjoy it now. Nothing to be frightened of. You’re just having a conversation…with a lot of people 🙂

      1. isn’t that funny? i’ve also flipped from being terrified of lecturing to absolutely loving it. You’re right – it’s a conversation and what a privilege it is to share in the journey of your audience.

  2. I’m not a comfortable public speaker, but I attended a presentation by a former improv comedian, Karen Hough, that was really helpful in breaking my own mental barriers. Her book “Be The Best Bad Presenter Ever” was great and helped me see the fun in it. I think your list is good too! It’s definitely about finding strategies that work for you.

  3. I find that if I can stay focused on the content of what I am presenting and why I find that content compelling, I do much better with the presentation. This strategy helps keep me out of my head and rooted in the fact that presenting isn’t about “Look at me!” but instead “Look at this!”

  4. can’t believe you were in Toronto and I didn’t get to hear you. My team was hosting an International Women’s Day event today and I’ve always thought you would make a great speaker at our yearly event. Reading your books has changed my perspective on the challenges and choices I make.

  5. As a college professor, I’ve found a number of things that help. First, practice does indeed help over time. Knowing your content well also gives you a boost. Powerpoint used very very minimally – key words, pictures. As few sentences as possible. And talking only off key word notes – not a written script. And humour… with caution! My audience are a hard one to amuse – college kids. So I proceed daintily there.

    But nothing works better than confidence. Whether it be real or manufactured, go up and exude confidence.

    1. I should also add, that I share your experience of public speaking as an accidental career. It’s obvious of course that academia brings lecturing with it – but so few of us go into it for that reason. (which is why there are so many terrible lecturers out there).

    1. @Rinna- it was nice! I loved walking around in the morning, and I stopped by Indigo – I have put links to their bookstore operation for years but had never been there.

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